By Tamara Ramadan
Cover picture taken from Wikipedia
Ah, Valentine’s Day: Two words synonymous with love and friendship. Nowadays, the only stressful thing about the holiday is finding a partner to spend it with. However, interestingly enough, if you were to look at the origins of the holiday, you’d quickly realize that it’s not as colorful or sweet as it’s advertised. In fact, it’s argued that the origins of Valentine’s day can be traced back to a pagan holiday in the days of the roman empire—and it included a lot more dead animals and woman-whipping.
Researchers draw Valentine’s day back to Luperca’lia, a festival dedicated to the Roman god of fertility, Lupercus. The festivities, which were held yearly on the 15th of February, included the delightfully romantic slaughter of ‘fertile’ animals: goats and dogs. The amorous atmosphere did not end here. Following the killing of the animals, the hide would be cut into long, thin pieces, which would then be used as whips to (gently, according to some sources) slap the women of the city. This practice was believed to make the processes of conception and childbirth easier. Luperca’lia was generally believed to be a day of ‘purification,’ bringing fertility and virtue, despite its rather gruesome nature.
So how did we go from animal skin whips to chocolate hearts?
As Christianity began to spread at the end of the 5th century, pagan holidays became outlawed, and Luperca’lia was amongst them. Around the time it was outlawed, however, Pope Gelasius declared the 14th of February as Valentine’s day. In a sense, it was as though Luperca’lia did not simply vanish, rather, it took a new form. Cementing this, in an article for NPR.com, Arnie Seipel writes “Pope Gelasius I muddled things in the fifth century by combining St. Valentine’s Day with Lupercalia to expel the pagan rituals.”
According to history.com, it is not until some centuries had passed that the holiday became associated with love. Indeed, one history.com article reads “During the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed in France and England that February 14 was the beginning of birds’ mating season, which added to the idea that the middle of Valentine’s Day should be a day for romance.”
And what could be more passionate than poetry? According to some sources, such as NPR.com and History.com, the holiday gained a tremendous amount of popularity thanks to none other than Shakespeare and Chaucer, who mentioned the holiday in some of their works. In fact, one memorable line in Shakespeare’s Hamlet reads “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day, / All in the morning betime, / And I a maid at your window, / To be your Valentine.”
Thankfully, the contemporary Valentine’s holiday is certainly not as bloody as it once was. So if you’re spending it alone, remember that it could be worse—at least you’re not getting slapped with goat skin.
Shakespeare, William. “Act 4, Scene 5: Popup Note Index Item: ‘Maid.’” MyShakespeare, 5 Apr. 2022, https://myshakespeare.com/hamlet/act-4-scene-5-popup-note-index-item-maid.
Smith, William. “Lupercalia.” LacusCurtius • Roman Religion – The Lupercalia (Smith’s Dictionary, 1875), https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Lupercalia.html.
“Valentine’s Day 2023: Origins, Background & Traditions – History.” History of Valentine’s Day, 2009, https://www.history.com/topics/valentines-day/history-of-valentines-day-2.